Living history

In Suffolk, Helen Werin braves the elements and finds a treasure trove of delights at the end of her rainbow.

There's a lane in Dunwich – Middlegate Street – which was once a main thoroughfare in to a thriving walled town, half the size of London, with palaces and even a mint. Now that same lane leads pedestrians straight over the cliffs above the North Sea.

Surely, we thought, there can be no more stark a reminder of the relentless erosion of our coastline than this? Ah, but that was before we ventured into the tiny museum at the heart of what is now little more than a hamlet and stared in astonishment at a series of 90-year-old photographs. These monochrome pictures give a blow by blow account of All Saints' Church retreating from the cliffs into the sea. They even had our daughters dumbstruck for a moment.

Welcome to Suffolk. A county, I had always believed, which epitomised everything that is great about Britain: a glorious landscape as much represented by its son John Constable's masterpieces as by the summery images of the beach huts at Southwold.

What I hadn't realised was that Suffolk has such a fascinating wealth of history and heritage – a rich seam that I doubt we would have barely scraped had it not been for the weather, which threw everything it had at us, from hailstones the size of marbles, to blizzards.

So, instead of spending their days frolicking on dune-backed beaches stretching for miles, as they had hoped, our girls got some of the most influential history lessons they are ever likely to get. And all in the name of keeping warm and dry. Did they complain? Not a bit! Such is the thrall of Suffolk's treasures.

We'd based ourselves at the Camping and Caravanning Club's Kessingland site, literally a "roaring" success because you wake up to the sounds of the lions at the Africa Alive park next door. It was only a mile to the beach and a short drive to the long golden sands at Lowestoft.

But we wanted to explore the parts of the Suffolk coast that are just as famous for what isn't there as much as for what is.

Take Aldeburgh, for example; a town which has also lost a lot of its fine buildings to the sea. The striking 16th century Moot Hall, once in the town centre, is now close to the beach, where the fishermen pull up their boats to sell their catch. Not even the snow could diminish the charm of its main street, lined with colourful cottages, smart small shops, galleries and restaurants.

We were in for a real treat the next day at Southwold, as the sun deigned to make an appearance. But what were the much-photographed candy-coloured beach huts doing in the car park on the north side of the pier? A chat with one of the owners revealed that the huts spend part of the year behind a wall for fear of being washed away by the high tide.

Southwold certainly lived up to our expectations. It has a more upmarket feel to it than most British seaside resorts, with a beautiful sandy beach and a 21st century-renovated pier. The centrepiece is a rather crudely amusing water clock featuring "peeing men". A greater source of amusement was to read the hundreds of plaques set into the handrails, donations for which helped to pay for the pier.

Many of the sentiments sing the considerable praises of Southwold, but there are also proposals and messages of unrequited love, of which I would have loved to have known the outcome.

Without doubt, the biggest curiosity is the Under the Pier Show which features the weirdest collection of slot machines you could ever hope to find. Among them was a "gene forecaster" which presents one with a "personal expiry date". With hindsight, perhaps I should have tried the "instant weight loss" in preparation for my over-indulgence later on gloriously fresh haddock and chips at Mrs T's fish restaurant down by the port.

To get there we had followed the port signs from Southwold town centre along an unpromising road filled with huge potholes before arriving at what my husband benevolently described as a "quaintly rustic" workaday port.

The biggest draw of this part of the country for me, though, was Sutton Hoo. This is where the richest burial ever discovered in Britain was found, an Anglo-Saxon ship containing the treasure of one of the earliest English Kings.

We followed our expert guide, Robert Allen, on his mobility scooter, the only person allowed into the site on four wheels. "So you will see something historic anyway," he joked.

Apt words, because, foolishly, I had not done my homework or I would have realised that most of the fabulous treasure archaeologists unearthed here is actually in the British Museum 85 miles away. I would have to be satisfied with replicas and photographs of the iconic helmet, breathtakingly beautiful gold and cloisonn shoulder clasps and gold and gem-adorned sword on display in the exhibition hall. My disappointment was short-lived, however, because of Robert's enthusiasm and the realisation that the British Museum loans some of the original finds for new exhibits each summer. Just the excuse, then, for a return visit.

I was reminded by my husband of another Suffolk claim to fame when driving from Woodbridge towards the landmark Orford Castle. Heavy snow was hitting us horizontally as we drove through a Rendlesham Forest eerily devoid of other people or traffic. It is here, in December 1980, that Britain's most famous UFO was spotted over several days by US Air Force police from the nearby NATO bases. To add to the air of mystery, Orford Ness, the long shingle spit beyond the castle, was a testing site in the development of the atomic bomb.

Now the whole area is better known as a designated one of outstanding natural beauty, and quite rightly so. The estuaries are nationally important for wading birds and the heaths are home to rare insects, amphibians and birds, including the Stonechat and Dartford Warbler.

Later, back in the little museum next to the 16th century Ship Inn we were still mesmerised by the disturbing story of Dunwich. Much of the city was swept away by a fierce five-day storm in 1286 which also blocked the harbour with so much sand and shingle that it killed the port. Within 40 years the population went from 4,500 to 600. Now, with the cliffs eroding at the rate of 800 metres in 800 years – and still going – the population stands at 120, most of whom are retired.

Feeling suitably sobered by the thought of delightful Dunwich eventually disappearing altogether, we headed back to our campsite.

As if right on cue, the sun came out and a glorious rainbow arched over us. We had mostly failed to find that sun we'd hoped for. Instead, we'd found so many gems that it really didn't matter.

What to see and do

Lowestoft, birthplace of composer Benjamin Britten, is the most easterly point in Britain. Behind its somewhat shabby faade is a proud town with a long seafaring tradition, lovely beaches, museums and historic boats. www.visit-sunrisecoast.co.uk

Snape Maltings Concert Hall is home to the Aldeburgh Music Festival every June. It also hosts concerts, opera and dance year-round. www.snapemaltings.co.uk

Climb up Southwold Lighthouse, which is open some Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends from March to November. 01502 722576. www.trinityhouse.co.uk.

Walking is the best way to appreciate the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). For route suggestions, visit www.suffolkcoastandheaths.org. Trails available from local Tourist Information Centres.

Get a glimpse of the African savannah at Africa Alive at Kessingland. www.africa-alive.co.uk.

01502 740291

For a Choose Suffolk short break brochure call 0844 980 8518 or visit www.choosesuffolk.com.

The Camping and Caravanning Club site in Whites Lane, Kessingland, is open March-November. 01502 742040. www.campingandcaravanningclub.

co.uk

Sutton Hoo. 01394 389700. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/suttonhoo

Orford Castle. www.english-heritage.org.uk

Dunwich Museum. 01728 648796.

Orford Ness National Nature Reserve: 01728 648024 (Infoline).